William Howard LISTER, D.S.O., M.C
Rank: Captain
Unit: 21st Field Ambulance ROYAL ARMY MEDICAL CORPS
Date of Death: 9 August 1918
Age: 31
Cemetery: Magnaboschi British Cemetery, Italy

Howard Lister was, without doubt, one of the bravest men commemorated on this website. His courage was recognised by the award of gallantry medals on four separate occasions.

He was the son of William and Louisa of Norris Bank, Stockport and, later, of 3 Penrhyn Terrace, Buxton He was born locally on 5 May 1887 but lived most of his early life in Buxton. William Lister was managing director of H Faulder & Co., a local firm of cocoa and confectionary manufactures with several premises around the town. As with many middle class boys of the time, he was educated at boarding school – at first he attended Merton House School, in Pennaenmawr. The family were members of the Society of Friends and, for six months in 1900/01, he attended the Quakers’ Ackworth School at Pontefract, before going to Buxton College, where he remained until 1905. .

After finishing school, he started a medical course at University College, London. In 1907, Howard was involved in a “cause celebre” known at the time as the “Brown Dog Affair”. The dog had been used in experiments three years earlier and anti-vivisectionists erected a bronze statue of it as a protest. There were a number of student demonstrations against it, mainly by medical students who believed that animal experiments furthered the cause of medical science. On 10 December, 100 students, including Howard, went to the Memorial with the intent of vandalising or destroying it. The police arrived and arrested him and nine others. They appeared in court the next day and were each fined £5.

Two years after this, he joined the University’s Officer Training Corps and, in 1912, he and a number of other students went with the Red Cross to assist the Greek Army as orderlies during the Balkan War. In October 1913, he qualified as a physician and a surgeon. He immediately gained employment as a ship’s doctor aboard the Royal Mail Packet Ship “Cobequid”, which sailed between the UK, Canada and the West Indies. It sank in January 1914, but all aboard, including Howard, were saved.

In the July, he had gained a position as a house physician at University College Hospital but had not started work when War was declared on 4 August. He immediately volunteered for the army and was attached to 16th Field Ambulance. He was in France on active service by the end of the month.  The Field Ambulance had a much wider role than we might understand today. It did, indeed, operate fleets of ambulances to evacuate casualties, but it also provided Advanced Dressing Stations (ADS), staffed by doctors, just behind the front line. Another major task was the provision of stretcher bearer parties which carried the men from their own Regimental Aid Posts to the ADS. For most of his service, William was in charge of the bearer section of the Ambulance.

On 23 or 24 October 1914, he was near the front line when he heard that Captain M K Sandys, of the 2nd Battalion, York & Lancaster Regiment, was badly wounded in No Man’s Land. Howard went out to help him but found him dead. While out in the open, he was shot in the right arm, losing a large portion of his elbow joint. He was urged to have it amputated but refused and, in due course, would recover almost all movement, although it pained him for the rest of his life. For this act of courage, he was awarded the Military Cross and was amongst the first to receive this new award (London Gazette, 23 June 1915). Whilst still on sick leave, he received the medal from the King, on 24 August 1915, at Buckingjham Palace. During this time, he spent a lot of time with friends and a Captain Cleminson later wrote “His arm was almost useless but he was persistent in his refusal to accept any assistance in such things as cutting up food, yet appreciated keenly unobtrusive attentiveness which might make things easier for him.”

In the December, a medical board passed him fit for duty and he was posted to 30th General Hospital in Sicily but after a few weeks, returned to France where he was assigned to 55th Field Ambulance. He wrote home on 14 May “I don’t like war and I like it less than ever now as I find I get in a great old funk if any gun goes off near me. I do hope and trust I shall behave myself when the real testing time comes, as soon it will, I suppose.”

For the forthcoming attack that would mark the opening of the Battle of the Somme, Captain Lister would be in charge of the evacuation of the wounded from the front line to the Advanced Dressing Station. Howard wrote home after the first day, on 1 July, “I insisted in having carte blanche as to the plans…..and got my way. Everything went like clockwork and everyone is very bucked up. We had the whole battlefield cleared in twenty hours.”

For these efforts the London Gazette, on 20 October 1916, recorded the award of a Bar to his Military Cross (in effect, a second Cross). The citation reads “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during operations. For thirty hours, he supervised the work of his stretcher bearers in the open under heavy shell fire. On another occasion, he searched a wood for wounded under very heavy shell fire.”  

Another friend also mentioned the incident of searching the wood. “His individual acts of bravery were very numerous to my knowledge. On one occasion, for instance, he searched Trones Wood, which was being subjected to an extraordinarily heavy artillery barrage, from end to end, in search of an officer who, he believed, was lying wounded in it. The very idea that a man might be lying out wounded was a terrible thought to Lister.”

Only a month later, in the edition of 24 November, there was announcement that he had been awarded a second Bar. “He led his stretcher bearers under intense fire, dressing and evacuating the wounded. He displayed great determination and utter disregard for his personal safety throughout the operations.”

Howard had also described the events that led to this second Bar “In the second show, another Field Ambulance took its turn in being first up and I did not get up till the second day…..When I got there, the other Field Ambulance M.O. told me he had cleared one wood and the other was impossible. I never thought much of him and didn’t believe him. First went forward into the wood he said he had cleared. Dressed twenty. Perfectly bloody place. Then went back for my bearers and we cleared forty to fifty lying-down cases. Didn’t think much of his ideas of clearing!......Went forward into the next wood. You cannot imagine a more hellish place. Dead men, battle debris, trees split and fallen, shells falling everywhere. You had to crawl over the dead. Men’s arms and brains stuck on branches and on the ground. We found very few wounded. Dressed those and decided bearers should not do a real beat of the woods until there is a lull….as it would be simply killing them.”

Howard was invalided home around Christmas 1916, returning to duty in March 1917. During the summer and early autumn he took part in the Third Battle of Ypres and another friend, Major H M Heyland  wrote of this period “…He was always cheery. I always think of him walking very slowly, with one hand in his pocket, down the most damnable duck boards over the Steenbeck, shells flying all over the place and everybody else running like blazes.” Around this time, he was gassed and, also, wounded in the leg “I got a knock on the calf from a big shell splinter. It only grazed, luckily, but enough to cut into the muscle layer and badly bruise the lower part of the leg.”

A fourth award, this time of the Distinguished Service Order, was announced in the Gazette on 14 December 1917, for his bravery around Ypres. The citation, published on 19 April 1918, reads “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty as bearer officer taking parties to the Regimental Aid Post, though they suffered heavy casualties on the way. When the regimental medical officer was wounded, he attended to the wounded of this battalion, searching our lines and No Man’s Land from midday to dark for wounded and then returned to his field ambulance for another 12 hours until relieved.”

By Christmas, he was again home sick suffering from the effects of the gas and bronchitis and he was admitted to an officers’ hospital at Watermouth Castle, near Ilfracombe. He received his DSO from the King on 16 January 1918 and, at the time, is thought to have been the only man with a DSO, MC and 2 Bars. On 9 February he returned to France and, in the same month, received another honour when he was made  a Fellow of University College. In the late spring, he fell on his still weak arm and had to return to the UK for a further period at Watermouth Castle.  

On 16 June 1918, once again fit, he went on active service again - this time to Italy. He was killed by the explosion of an enemy trench mortar shell which fell near to him. It’s understood that he was buried, with full military honours, at the cemetery at Tresche-Conca (now Cesuna)

A book entitled “William Howard Lister” was written in 1919 by his friend Walter Seton and is the basis for much of this biography. It contains a foreword by Lieutenant-General Sir Ivor Maxse. “He was a real human being and he had acquired war experience of priceless value. He was learning and teaching all the time and his reliant temperament spread confidence around him….Then his reputation spread further and after the great fights on the Somme in July 1916, Lister’s character became notorious in the Division and were considerably advanced after the assault and capture of Thiepval in September….His eager temperament and standard of duty made him indispensable to the troops.”

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